The people at Domino’s Pizza Inc.’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., could use a break. Once the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke disaster landed last week, the pizza giant got slammed with consumer complaints. Twitter served as a bashing ground:
Domino’s faced a quirk in replying to such attacks. That is, it has never done business with the Rush Limbaugh Show. “We just don’t know what this is all about because we’ve never advertised on the program,” says Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for the company.
Instead of just issuing one large, corrective press release, Domino’s went micro. According to McIntyre, it set out to reply to every tweet, return every call and send a response to every e-mail — 3,500 in all. “We let people know this is not about us coming out for or against anything,” says McIntyre. “We were not involved. We don’t advertise on the Rush Limbaugh show. We should not be part of this. We are sucked into this thing that happened.” Domino’s, he says, hasn’t advertised nationally on radio over the past six months.
So how did this happen? John Hlinko, founder of Left Action, a group that’s leading a boycott of Limbaugh, replies: “It’s a good question, though I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. I initially saw it reported very early in a few places as part of a group of advertisers, but Domino’s seemed to deny the report quickly.”
Domino’s, too, isn’t 100 percent sure just how it got paired with Limbaugh and his misogynistic remarks. But it has what McIntyre terms a “theory.”
A theory that starts, of course, with Limbaugh.
It was just more than a year ago. In his Jan. 19, 2011, show, the conservative radio host complained about the lack of translation for a speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao: “Hu Jintao was just going, ‘Ching cha. Ching chang cho cha. Cha Chow. Ching Cho. Chi ba ba ba. Kwo kwa kwa kee. Cha ga ga. Ching chee chay. Ching zha bo ba. Jya jya. Chang cho chi che. Cha dee. Uuuuh chee bada ba. Jee jee cho ba.’ Nobody was translating, but that’s the closest I can get.”
Real funny there. Limbaugh’s Asian stereotyping rampage drew a particularly harsh reaction in Northern California. Leland Yee, a California state senator who was born in China, fired up a protest against the radio host and his advertisers.
Adam Keigwin, Yee’s chief of staff, did a lot of legwork in launching the initiative, including compiling a list of Limbaugh advertisers. By his account, he scoured the Limbaugh Web site for advertisers and also listened to the Limbaugh show on Sacramento radio station KFBK. He says that he is “almost positive” he heard an ad for Domino’s on the station.
Wherever the ad originated, Domino’s appeared on Yee’s list of targeted advertisers. And irate consumers got busy. “[We were] getting all these e-mails saying they were going to boycott us, and we had no idea what was happening or where,” says McIntyre. Domino’s appealed to Yee’s office and secured its removal from the list, though McIntyre claims that it was a quiet deletion, unaccompanied by an explanation that the company never should have been listed to begin with.
The way Domino’s tells it, the Sacramento station flubbed an advertising placement. Somehow Domino’s got on to KFBK’s airing of the Limbaugh show, and it just happened to be at the precise moment that activists were taking notes, says McIntyre.
If so, KFBK isn’t aware of the miscue. “I’m unfamiliar with any consequence of spots running for Domino’s,” says KFBK General Manager Jeff Holden. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.” Holden suggests that perhaps the Domino’s ad slipped in through the Limbaugh show’s roster of national advertisers; McIntyre suggests that’s impossible, noting that Domino’s has never done national advertising — indeed any advertising — with Limbaugh. (Inquiries regarding Limbaugh’s national advertising are pending.)
“It was somebody’s honest mistake at a radio station in Sacramento,” says McIntyre. “That’s why this blindsided us.”
There is an alternate explanation out there, which has to do with Domino’s corporate history. The company was founded by Tom Monaghan, a businessman known for his conservative views. In 1998, Monaghan sold the company — to Bain Capital, the firm of Mitt Romney fame. Though Bain divested itself of its Domino’s shares by 2011, the company’s proximity to conservative politics may have eased its inclusion on Limbaugh boycott lists.
The irony of Domino’s false association with Limbaugh is that its own advertising philosophy is to “avoid programs that are incendiary, controversial,” says McIntyre. It’s big on sports advertising — pizza goes well with game-viewing — and also on drive-time radio programs, when people are hungry and thinking about dinner.
Radio is an opaque and complicated world. There’s local advertising, national advertising, licensing and other peculiarities that activists face in trying to puncture a show’s financial viability. Limbaugh and his like do not have to post a master list of advertisers.
Notes Hlinko: “When we’d see a company mentioned as an advertiser in one place, we could usually get a quick sense of how accurate the report was by searching Google for the company name + ‘Limbaugh,’ to see if other sources backed up the report. Still, though, we were careful to put the caveat on the site that this was what believed to be the list, but could not guarantee it was 100% accurate.”